In varied career path, alumna Theresa Good makes her mark on science and science policy

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

Tags: alumni

Photo of Theresa Good

Theresa Good. Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation.

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Theresa Good (PhD ‘96) has lived in many places and explored a few career paths, but some things have never changed: a passion for science, a deep appreciation of mentoring, and the love of sailing she first discovered on Lake Mendota, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Born as the fourth of six children to parents who started their family at the tender age of 17 in a suburb of Rochester, New York, Good says she never really knew there was anything but science as a career choice. Her father was a chemist; her oldest brother followed in his footsteps; two of her other brothers are engineers; and her sister teaches computer science. Her mother was a role model for persistence by completing her bachelor’s degree in finance at the age of 50.

Exactly what kind of science career Good herself wanted to pursue was a bit more challenging to figure out, though.

For college, she went to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, thinking that a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering was all she would need for the kind of job she had in mind. Encouraged by her professors to consider graduate school, however, she applied for the chemical engineering PhD program at Cornell University—and was accepted as the only woman that year.

But the lack of a female role model likely contributed to her questioning the pursuit of a PhD degree while at Cornell. In the end, she decided to leave earlier than planned—though not without a master’s degree in hand—to join the Peace Corps. For the next two years, she taught biology and chemistry (in French) in a remote village of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Upon her return to the United States, she worked for a pharmaceutical company before returning to academia as a biomedical lab scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“During that time, I realized that I wanted to work on my own research, rather than somebody else’s,” Good says. “So I was pretty sure I would go back to graduate school and pick up where I had left off, although my interest had switched to biomedical applications of chemical engineering by then.”

But before she put that plan into action, there was one more opportunity she could not pass up: going abroad for another year, to Cairo, Egypt, to teach biology and math (in English this time) at an international school attended primarily by diplomats’ children.

From Cairo, she applied for the chemical engineering PhD program at UW-Madison, with the specific goal of studying the basic mechanisms of neurotoxicity in Alzheimer’s disease in the lab of Professor Regina Murphy.

“I was very lucky that Regina had room for me in her lab, and I felt that I had the best research project that anyone could possibly have,” says Good. “I loved Madison and spent a wonderful four years of my life there.”

Those four years included sailing with the Wisconsin Hoofers Sailing Club, many runs through the UW Arboretum to train for marathons, regular bike rides between home and campus, and frequent visits to the Farmer’s Market on the Capitol Square.

“I worked hard and played hard,” Good recalls. “I was an early riser, so I got my experiments started in the morning, went sailing while the reactions were coming to equilibrium, and then finished up at the lab late in the day.”

Good still remembers some of the distinguished lectures she attended back then, such as civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and neurologist Oliver Sacks. She was especially inspired by two of her UW-Madison professors: Charlie Hill, who taught kinetics (her favorite class of all), and Juan de Pablo, for whom she was a teaching assistant.

“Watching how Professor de Pablo convinced the students that they knew nothing at the beginning of the semester and then laid out everything they had accomplished by the end of it was pretty amazing,” she says. “Seeing this circle of knowledge was empowering for them, and they adored him for it.”

Upon graduation, Good began her faculty career at Texas A&M University and then moved to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 2010, her career path took another unexpected turn when she was recruited by the National Science Foundation to become a program director.

Somewhat reluctantly at first, she explored science administration for two years in a temporary role, returned to her faculty position at Maryland to mull things over, and then accepted a permanent position with NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences in 2013. Soon after, she was asked to serve as its deputy director, overseeing a research budget of $130 million a year—an appointment she continues to hold today.

“I decided that I could have a bigger impact on the direction of science at NSF than I could running my own lab at the university,” Good says. “But I maintained a close connection to academia and the last student I supervised just finished her PhD in summer 2016.”

Good credits several outstanding mentors with her professional success: Michael Shuler at Cornell University, who was very supportive when she felt unsure about pursuing a PhD degree the first time around; Regina Murphy at UW-Madison, the best PhD advisor she could have asked for; and Parag Chitnis at NSF, who guided her on science policy and helped shape her vision for the division she now directs.

Having been on both the receiving and giving end of mentoring, Good is especially proud of a mentoring award she received from the Graduate Student Association at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 2007. Other professional accolades include being named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and receiving the Distinguished Service Award in Chemical Engineering from the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Division of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 2015.

Today, Good continues to sail, bike and run (though no longer marathons) near her home in Pasadena, Maryland, and still has a passion for science. Reflecting upon her own career, she has this advice to share with current engineering students:

“Be curious, learn as many different things as you can before you finish your degree, and collaborate with people who are smarter than you,” she says. “I don’t think engineers should try to become biologists, but as part of a research team, they are in an excellent position to figure out how to apply engineering tools to solve many important problems in the biological sciences.”

Author: Silke Schmidt